The Most Underrated Directors in Cinema

Quantifying success can be problematic, especially when it comes to a subjective art form such as cinema. That hasn’t stopped us from looking back through film history and examining the directors we felt have been overlooked or underestimated in terms of their importance, contributions, and artistry. In many cases, lack of commercial appeal can prevent a filmmaker from finding the critical success they deserve — especially since Hollywood measures its greatest achievements by the almighty dollar. Other directors’ films display an unheralded genius too frequently unnoticed. Here are ten underrated filmmakers for your consideration. Feel free to chime in with your own picks, below.

Mary Harron

Harron grew up in a family of actors and eventually found herself a popular figure in New York City’s underground music scene during the 1970s, contributing work to the fanzine Punk. That anarchic spirit became chilling, organized chaos in her best-known feature, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Harron transformed the wild, excessive novel — many of its passages thought to be unfilmable — into a carefully balanced, smart satire that served Ellis’ biting cultural criticisms well.

“You must do the things that frighten you,” the director said in a recent interview. “Everyone wants me to do another American Psycho, but you can’t really recreate that. That was a really amazing book and project. Not that I wouldn’t love to do another black comedy, but if that material isn’t there, you can’t do it. You can’t fake it. I also don’t want to do something that’s edgy again, just for the sake of it. It has to be interesting.”

It wasn’t the first time Harron imprinted us with her “madness.” Her freshman feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, first drew us close to the fringe with Lili Taylor’s fantastic performance as real-life assassin, Valerie Solanas. Harron’s 2005 biopic about bondage pinup Bettie Page, The Notorious Bettie Page, teased that same delirium (the model had a reclusive breakdown).

The director’s gothic coming-of-age-tale The Moth Diaries has been her least successful film to date. Had the movie not been released in the midst of a tween Twilight era, would it have fared better? Harron’s focus on challenging material and provocative characters leaves audiences waiting years between features, but her reputation as an iconoclast is secure.